A few weeks ago, a whimsical structure appeared in the square next to the building where I work. Its curved walls were made of wood, painted a dark green. At the top of each wall panel was leadlight glass in red and green. Its roof was a dome of stretched canvas. At the front of this makeshift structure, spanning the entrance, were painted Art Nouveau panels, drawing you in. A glimpse inside showed booths, a bar, columns and a stage in warm polished wood. It was a Spiegeltent.
Inside, every night, cabaret artists performed or acrobats tumbled in spangled costumes or soulful singers sang their hearts out. I think there’s a little part in all of us that loves sequins and spectacle and fancy lighting. One of my great-grandmas was a Romani, so a desire to run away and join the circus or to trundle about in a painted caravan is in my DNA. I’ve loved walking past the Spiegeltent every day because of what it represents: creativity, freedom, self-expression.
That Spiegeltent has been a life raft for me in recent weeks, because bereavement is hard and you need life rafts to cling to while you’re swimming through the sea of grief. I think the way grief was dealt with in Victorian times was much better than the way we deal with it now. The Victorians had set mourning periods, signified by the colour of their clothes. They started off by wearing black then moved to purple and grey as time went on. It was obvious to everyone when a person was in mourning. The bereaved weren’t expected to fully participate in society for a year or more.
In our shiny, clever, modern world, you get a week off work when a family member dies, two if you push it. So you go back to work and try to act like a fully functioning human being while inside you’re all colours of mourning: black, purple and grey, like a bruise. Because there’s no obvious outward sign, people forget. You can ask for help or extra time but in the working world patience extends only so far and then you’re expected to be all right again.
This is not meant to be a whinge. I’m just documenting my observations. Every damn day I’m creating new coping mechanisms and giving silent thanks for small things, little life rafts of distraction, inspiration and hope. In case you’re going through something similar, I’ll share those life rafts with you. The first one is, of course, the Spiegeltent and all it represents. The next one is this: Detectorists. It’s three series of gentle story lines and subtle comedy set in beautiful countryside, and for half an hour at a time it makes your poor heart happy.
Soup is another life raft. A friend who now goes by the nickname of Soup Ninja keeps making me soup and just bringing it over, no questions asked. She knows that if she did ask I’d probably say she shouldn’t bother, so she just brings it. And it’s always delicious and enormously comforting.
Poetry can be a life raft. Another friend sent me this book: Evidence, by Mary Oliver. The poems in it are exquisite reflections on the natural world and our inner worlds, and some are about the way we try to grasp at the things we know we can’t keep. It’s the kind of book you hug to your chest after you’ve read it.
Here’s another life raft: Hyperbole and a half. It’s a blog, it’s a book and it makes me Laugh.So.Much. Even when I don’t want to. The dog sections of the book especially crack me up. It’s Allie Brosh’s cartoon account of her life and I love it.
Friends are a life raft, especially when they can give you space and a bit of time and aren’t offended when you don’t feel like talking or when you can’t really be there for them. A dog walk or a quick chat over a cuppa or the occasional trip to the movies is all I’m able to do right now. And I just don’t remember anything anyone tells me. But thank you, my friends, for still being there.
Sophie Hansen’s newsletter, which you can sign up to on her Local is Lovely blog, is a life raft. Most Mondays she sends out reasons to be cheerful: links to lovely recipes or interesting podcasts or groovy architecture and interiors. It’s such a cheery thing to find in your inbox on the least cheery day of the working week.
Home maintenance can be a life raft. I’m ridiculously pleased with the curtains I put up the other week, even though I haven’t yet re-hung the bedroom ones. I think it’s to do with being completely focused on the task and having to figure out little puzzles to get something right. And then you end up with a new colour or texture or arrangement of furniture to look at, which can change your outlook too.
Trees are a life raft. We’ve kind of skipped autumn this year. April was unseasonably hot. Now we’re into fog and frost. The trees are confused and so am I. They’re changing colour one day and dropping all their leaves the next. Michael Leunig’s cartoon “Interview with an autumn leaf” made me gasp when I found it on the wall of Dad’s study. Now I see all the leaves letting go and I think of that cartoon.
Booking a holiday can be a life raft. I ummed and aahed about this one. I didn’t want to go too far. I didn’t want to go anywhere unfamiliar, not just yet. So I booked a week in a posh hotel in the Big Smoke. And I booked a seat on a plane to take me there, rather than the squashy bus or the slow train. That’s what credit cards are for. Now I’m glad I did. It’s not till July but it’s a treat to look forward to.
Community is a life raft. Mum and Dad live in a small town. In the days after Dad died, I was driven a bit mad by the phone ringing, ringing, ringing and the doorbell chiming, chiming, chiming from all the people who were in shock and wanted to express their sorrow. But when half the town turned up at the funeral I was so moved. Dad knew he was lucky to live in a supportive community and now they’re a life raft for Mum.
Movies can be a life raft. I went to see the bittersweet film Aurore recently. Perhaps it appealed to me so much because I’m une femme d’un certain age. Also, the French have the best names, really they do. It was written by Blandine Lenoir and stars Agnès Jaoui. See what I mean? And it’s also got Thibault de Montalembert in it, which I think is my favourite name ever. I can’t stop saying it.
There’s a scene in the film where Aurore dances to a song that, if you’re grieving, will probably make you cry. But I’m going to share it here anyway because it’s sung by the incomparable Nina Simone. When someone dies, I think those of us who are left behind feel somehow guilty that we’re still here. It feels wrong to laugh or to sing or to be able to appreciate beauty at the same time as being incredibly sad. So this song might stir up all sorts of feelings, but listen to it anyway and let them all out. Here’s Nina, wearing a fabulous crocheted dress, in a spliced together film clip from 1968: I got life.
On Monday morning as I walked into work, the sun was shining down on the Spiegeltent, illuminating the beautiful Art Nouveau decoration at the entrance. I thought about taking a photo, and I wish I had because the next day they took it down and the weather changed. Now there are only office workers clutching their coats around them as they walk across the grey, empty square. And I can’t find a single good photo of that particular Spiegeltent on the internet. There’s just a grainy one taken by someone one evening before the show started. So it exists now only in my head, as the Spiegeltent of the mind, a fanciful distraction. Like the other life rafts, it’s a safe place to rest, briefly, on the unavoidable voyage through the sea of grief.